Had it not been 5°F with two feet of snow around my feet I would have thought someone had moved April Fool’s Day. That was my honest reaction when I first heard about Michigan House Bill 5226 which proposes to expand crop damage permits to include the killing of bear. This stunningly bad idea comes at a time when Michigan’s registered bear harvest has declined by 47% since 2008 for the lower peninsula alone, and 34% statewide.
I apologize in advance if this proposal turns out to be merely a technical procedure in order for an agricultural producer to qualify for a damage reimbursement program, but that’s not solely what this expansion of current law would allow.
For decades, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division has efficiently dealt with nuisance bear. In most cases, these animals have been successfully relocated. In other instances when lethal measures have been necessary, the authority for these actions has been limited to wildlife and law enforcement professionals. Although these services come at a high cost, these measures have always been performed in recognition of the animal’s societal and economic value.
I’m certain that there are agricultural operators who have incurred legitimate losses and who would have no intention of abusing such a system. Having said that, the economic justification for such a measure in itself would appear to be highly questionable. Although good data on these matters are always in short supply, when one considers the millions of dollars that hunting, recreational pursuit and management of bear mean to the State of Michigan, it is difficult to conceive that agricultural losses from even one bear could rival its value as free-ranging wildlife.
In addition to this being bad public policy, the expansion of the crop damage system to include bear would be an especially bad precedent. As we wrote in October of 2012 (One Elk Plan is Enough), there has been no shortage of legislative interest in the past concerning the possibility of adding elk to the crop damage permit list. It seems almost certain that if we commoditize bear in this manner, Michigan’s elk will soon follow.
There’s little question that bear increasingly seem to be habituating areas of Michigan where none had been found, in some instances, since the time of European settlement. This is not, however, an isolated trend. Conflicts between human and wildlife appear to be increasing nationally as habitat declines and as our human footprint expands. With the exception of the car-deer accident, most would contend that this is actually a wildlife conservation success story and not something that merits reactionary legislation.
While I remain confident that a strong voice in opposition to this proposal will emerge, this did seem to be a good time to come out of our own personal hibernation.
Please click here to see more about the status of this recently introduced legislation and a complete list of bill sponsors.